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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

the hot sun of June

Don't write this line in your poem. Don't write "the miracle of listening." Just don't. Just think of not using the word "hot" here, and what it does to the poem. All of a sudden your are suggesting heat without using the word. You can write "chilly sun" though, because that is unexpected. In one of the later sections of "A" Zukofsky talks about people being "glued to the television" after the JFK assassination. What's the point of being Z if you are going to write like that?

Blank is an important theme in the work of [author's name]

I would not write that as the first sentence of a paper. It would be ok for for a highschoolr, bad for an undergraduate, unforgivable for a grad student, and outrageous for a scholar.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Rhythm Worm

I know people have ear worm where they can't get a tune out of their head. Am I the only person who gets "rhythm worm" where it is a particular musical or prosodic rhythm that gets stuck in my head?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Imaginary Audience

I can think I am writing this current essay for the following people: Bob Antonio, Leslie Bary, Jo Labanyi, Carlos Piera. Then I can imagine their reactions and anticipate their objections, or what I would have to explain to each one of them. One is a sociologist, the other a Latin Americanist, the third a Peninsularist, and fourth a Spanish poet/linguist and Lorca specialist. I guess I have another four people too once I start thinking of more: Thomas Basbøll, Roberta Quance, etc... But let's say three or four for now. They probably would each agree to read it or portions of it, so this imaginary audience is quite real. Unlike other writers who might be paralyzed, I find it energizing to write for someone. If I imagine these readers I know exactly how to write it.

5th Paragaph

Not bad for a few hours work, huh:
Since this essay had its origin as part of a book-chapter on a lecture by Federico García Lorca, Juego y teoría del duende, it is grounded in Spanish exceptionalism, and in the thought of Lorca himself. I propose it as a general theory of the poetics of cultural exceptionalism because I am making the assumption—contrary to prevalent views of Lorca’s text—that, whatever its uniqueness, it is a typical example a kind of discourse found elsewhere in Spanish literature and intellectual history, and in other formulations of this poetics. My essay, then, will predict what Lorca’s duende might look like from the point of view of comparative exceptionalism.
These five paragraphs.

4th Paragraph

3rd paragraph (revised)

A systematic and more or less “universalist” approach, such as the one that I am proposing here, encourages a skeptical view of exceptionalism in general as well as in its individual manifestations: the recognition of patterns repeated from one discourse to another tends to undermine the entire intellectual project. Since universalism has its own well-known pitfalls, though, my use of it here will be largely heuristic. In other words, I am not proposing a universalist theory of culture, but looking for commonalities among discourses that make claims for particularism. It will not be my concern, either, to debunk or disprove exceptionalist claims one by one, either on empirical or ideological grounds. A historian, for example, might attempt to refute Unamuno’s notions of “casticismo” or “intrahistoria” through empirical research, but the ways in which these concepts invoke typically exceptionalist tropes reveal them to be suspect on their face. By the same token, it is easy to see that certain versions of exceptionalism are politically conservative, but even seemingly progressive narratatives should not escape scrutiny.


I've never been president of anything before except a dissertation defense in Spain. Now I am president-elect of the university senate. Looks like we have a lot of issues before us next year. I am not president of the faculty senate, but of the university senate, which includes senates for staff and students as well. I will not actually be president until fall of 14, so I have some time to learn what it's all about.

3rd paragraph

A systematic and more or less “universalist” approach, such as the one that I am proposing here, encourages a skeptical view of exceptionalism in general as well as in its individual manifestations: the recognition of patterns repeated from one discourse to another tends to undermine the entire intellectual project of exceptionalism. The thirteen axioms or predictions I am proposing aim to define a general theory of exceptionalism. In some sense these predictions are a form of “prophecy after the fact” (Burke) in that they make predictions based on the shape that exceptionalist discourse has already taken. We might prophesy, however, that a previously unknown form of exceptionalism might follow the patterns outlined here.

2nd paragraph

The aim of this essay is not to evaluate any particular set of exceptionalist claims--whether made on behalf of Spain, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, the United States, or Japan--but rather to sketch an outline of the poetics of cultural exceptionalism. My prediction, then, that exceptionalism will take on a “typical” form wherever it is found, even when the claims for uniqueness are strongest. The term poetics, here, will refer to the system of tropes that gives structure to exceptionalist discourse, and also to the poetics of poetry itself, insofar as modern poets from Yeats and Williams to Cavafy, Lorca, Lezama Lima, and Paz have linked their own projects to various forms of cultural nationalism.

1st paragraph

Cultural Exceptionalism is the claim that a particular people or nation possesses an especially distinctive cultural identity or unique historical destiny. In the most trivial sense, all cultures are different from one another, and hence exceptionalism might be merely a default position. (The idea of culture itself, in fact, might be exceptionalist in this broader sense.) True exceptionalism, however, entails a somewhat stronger set of claims, fraught with value judgments and articulated through a characteristically literary discourse.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


I have been reading Manzoni's 1840 novel, I promessi sposi. In chapter vi, the cappuccino friar Cristoforo asks the sexual harasser Rodrigo to let the two young lovers alone. He first states his case and concludes by saying, "... your conscience and your honor." Rodrigo responds: if you want to talk about my conscience, when I come to the monastery to confess to you. [which will never happen, of course] As for my honor, I alone am in charge of that. Cristoro goes on... There is a rhetorical battle. Rodrigo finally says, Lucia can come to my house and I can offer her my "protection." At this point, the friar explodes and tells off don Rodrigo, who then kicks him out of the house, saying he is lucky not to be beaten with a stick. On the way out, Rodrigo's aged servant tells Cristoforo that he has something else to tell him. They arrange to meet at the monastery the next day.

Meanwhile, a plan is hatched among Agnese, Lucia, and Renzo: there is another valid way of performing a marriage. If a man and a woman, in front of two witnesses, tell a priest that they are man and wife, then the marriage is valid. Renzo goes to find a friend, Tonio, to be their witness. In exchange he will pay Tonio the money to pay the debt he owes the priest. They will trick father Abbondio to come and perform the marriage agsint his will.

At this point, the action is flowing fast. The central conflict is an obvious one, between Renzo and Lucia and Rodrigo. The most powerful ally is Cristoforo, with Abbondio being the anti-helper.

I can't say it's a masterpiece. It is an ok novel, that's all, though important for Italian literature I'm sure. My comprehension level is high. If I understood more it would probably be dull for me. The characters are fairly flat so far, with the exception of Cristoforo. The combination of worldliness and clerical devotion si somewhat interesting.

Working Dream of the Imagined Canon

I was in a large meeting of some kind, around a large seminar table. I asked a colleague (whose identity does not matter here to you, but in the dream she was supposed to be "good at math") to solve a mathematical problem: assume 400 canonical novels in English. Now assume that the average English professor knows, really well, 40 of these. What is the chance that a randomly selected English prof. knows any given novel on this list? We have to assume that the novels are equally canonical, and that the English prof's knowledge is randomly distributed. In other words, sh/e is not more likely to know one novel more than another.

The math problem is rather simple, though it didn't appear quite so transparent in my dream, where I was improvising the word problem. 10%. When I woke up I assumed the point of this is that the canon is imaginary, like Benedict Anderson's imagined communities. I think that the nation is imagined as a "community" because I don't personally know more than a tiny percentage of all USU-ians.

The obvious flaw in my dream-logic is that all works are not equally canonical: the most canonical works would be those that the most English professors knew, almost tautologically speaking. Even so, we don't possess the entire canon at one time. I have read the Quijote four times, but not within the past 10 years.

It is curious that I have these working dreams. There is no escape from my own thoughts.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


In the fifth chapter of I promessi sposi Padre Cristoforo visits don Rodrigo's house. Rodrigo makes him seat down and drink wine with the other guests. There is a debate about the principle of "ambasciator non porta pena" [don't punish the messanger]. A messenger from a nobleman has been beaten with a stick at the house of another nobleman. Cristoforo has been asked to judge this case, or to settle the debate among Rodrigo's guests. He doesn't want to, but finally says: "neither messages, nor messengers, nor sticks." There is some debate about differences between sacred and profane realms, since Cristoforo is both a cleric and, in his previous life, a uomo of the mondo [man of the world]. Finally, there is a toast to the Conde Duque de Olivares, from which Cristoforo pointedly abstains. Then Rodrigo takes him into the other room to talk.

Once again, the entire novel seems to revolve around relations of power. Now the idea is the difference between codes: religious and secular, the code of noble conduct vs. everyday rules for others. Now the digression in the last chapter about Cristoforo's past life makes more sense.


Here is someone defending himself against plagiarism by saying that his book was written by a nègre. I'm assuming that in French, as in Spanish, a black man means ghost-writer.

It wasn't me that plagiarized, but the person who wrote the book for me. That shows, then, that you shouldn't use nègres, or ghost-writers of any race for that matter, des blancs, to write your books for you. Plagiarism by proxy?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


I remember a paper I wrote for a comp lit class as an undergraduate. It was on childhood autobiography from professor Richard Coe. My topic was the child as poet, as remembered by the adult autobiographer. My idea was very simple: if the autobiographer wanted to idealize his or her poetic beginnings, the poem itself could not appear in the autobiography. Only the warm glow of creation would remain, what it felt like to write the poem. On the other hand, if the adult took an ironic distance from the childhood poet, then the poem would be quoted verbatim. So it's the difference between the poetic feeling of the poet, and the poem itself, which cannot convey anything similar to the reader. Quoting the bad childhood poem is automatically deflating. I remember I used Nabokov's Speak Memory. Possibly Portrait of the Artist.

Why do I remember this? It's because it mattered to me. I felt like I was doing literary criticism like a professor would, with original ideas of my own. This is what I wanted to do for my career. I'm still convinced the paper was a good one.

My first literature class in Spanish

I remember my first upper division class in Spanish (as a student I mean). We were reading El árbol de la ciencia. We also read Niebla, La cabeza del cordero, and Los bravos. How come I remember that and my students can't remember what they read last semester. It was a 10-week quarter course so four novels were enough. Anyway, on the first or second page of Baroja's novel the word algarabía appears. It seemed like a cool word so I looked it up. As luck would happen, the professor called on me to ask the definition of that exact word. I looked more impressive than I was, since I had not looked up every word I didn't know. Some things, though, are meant to be.


In the fourth chapter of Manzoni's novel we meet Frate Cristoforo and get his back story. He is a cappuccino friar who was the son of a rich merchant. Cristoforo had killed an aristocratic man in a street fight and lost his own retainer Cristoforo in the process. He changed his name from Ludovico to Cristoforo upon joining the order, in honor of the dead man.

His passion is to be the protector of the weak and oppressed, so I have the feeling the novel is setting him up to be the counterweight to the priest Abbondio. The helper who can actually help, unlike everyone else from whom Renzo and Lucia have requested aid so far.

I find that I understand when I want to. In other words, I understand less when I am skipping through a part I don't really care about in the first place. If I slow down enough I understand almost everything. If I actually used an Italian dictionary I would understand everything, but then I would never finish the novel.

I promessi sposi (iii)

In chapter 3 it is revealed that Rodrigo had sexually pursued Lucia. That should have been obvious anyway. Why else would he be against the marriage unless he wanted her for himself?

Renzo goes to a nearby town in search of a "dottore," not a doctor but a lawyer. He brings along some capons as payment. He has a hard time making himself understood. He asks: "What is the penalty for threatening a priest about a wedding?" The lawyer thinks that Renzo has been the one threatening (which he has, in a way),and lays out a plan of action. [Many verbatim quotations from legal books here.] But Renzo means Rodrigo's threat to the priest. When the lawyer figures this out, he has his servant women kick Renzo out, along with this chickens. There is no way he will cross the intimidating Rodrigo on behalf of a poor illiterate person like Renzo.

Meanwhile, at home, Lucia and Agnese, her mother, welcome in a Capuchin Friar, Frate Galdino, who has come to take them to the chiesa for the wedding. That's the church. Galdino tell a story I didn't understand very well about a wedding held long ago at the monastery. Then Lucia gives some money to Galdino (more than Agnese thinks is appropriate, but Lucia has her reasons) and they ask him to go in search of another priest, Cristoforo. This is the priest to whom Lucia had confessed (or confided) Rodrigo's pursuit of her.

So it's the classic melodrama plot. Evil rich guy stands in the way of happiness of young lovers. The narrative rhythm will follow a series of errands and encounters. Each potential helper will refuse or fail in some way to protect the weak. All spheres of life and society will come into play at some point, I predict: clergy, aristocracy, peasants, military men, etc... Of course the evil Spaniard don Rodrigo has to be the villain! Why did I never read this before?

The melodrama has the perfect structure for a narrative of the downtrodden being oppressed.

Taking over the project

My friend Bob also asked me why I didn't structure my whole project around the notion of exceptionalism. This is a good question. I think I need to write the book about Lorca, and keep the exceptionalism material that doesn't fit in here for my next book, Snazzy Title: The Poetics of Cultural Exceptionalism. That one idea could take over the project and make the chapters I have already written useless.

The title maybe should be Against the Grain. A rebours. Sort of a play on Williams' In the American Grain.

Italian Identity

My friend the sociologist Bob Antonio was telling me yesterday that Italian lacked a sense of national identity because of the extreme difference among regions and between North and South. Bob's family is originally from Naples. Spanish identity, too, is a concept hard to get ahold of, given the scattered nature of the country, the strength of Catalan nationalism, etc... All the more striking, then, the attempts to make Spain cohere as a nation state.

Chapter II

Abbondio has spent all night pondering his dilemma. The one thing he won't do is marry Renzo and Lucia tomorrow. He gets up in the morning and goes to see Renzo, a "filadore de seta." I don't know what that is yet, but it is a humble but not too humble profession. He makes excuses why he can't peform the wedding today. There are formalities left to do. He uses some Latin to obfuscate. Renzo gets angry. Abbondio says to wait 15 days, or a week maybe. Renzo, on the way to see Lucia, runs into the priest's servant, Perpetua. He gets out of her that the reason why he can't be married, someone from the class of the "prepotenti" is to blame. The powerful, arrogant ones. He runs to Abbondio's house, threatens him, and gets the name of don Rodrigo. The priest could be killed just for telling him this name. Renzo has murder in his heart, wants to go kill Rodrigo, but knows the mansion is guarded by bravi outside and in. He goes to see Lucia and breaks the news to her. She knows something about why don Rodrigo does not want them to be married, but we don't yet know. Lucia tell her mother...

The motto for this chapter might be "Non si tratta di torto o di ragione; si tratta di forza." [It's not a question of wrong or right, but of force / power / violence.] The chapter is mostly scenes of dialogue, and is quite quick and easy to read.

I promessi sposi

One thing I like to do is read in Italian or Portuguese. It is just difficult enough so that I have to struggle to understand, but I can still get enough information to follow the plot. I read the first chapter of I promessi sposi, the most famous Italian novel. It starts with a description of a river flowing down in a hilly terrain in Lombardy, in Northern Italy. It is the 17th century. Spain controls the region. A priest, don Abbondio, is walking and his way is blocked by two bravi, or bandits. Description of characteristic dress of bandits. Long digression about bandits, citing authorities with aristocratic titles who have written about the subject, sometimes with conflicting views. The priest lifts his head up from the book he is reading and the bandits tell me that don Rodrigo, their patron, does not want him to perform a marriage the next day between Renzo and Lucia. I'm assuming those are the promessi sposi of the title. He will be killed if he performs the marriage. Why did every agree to marry Renzo? Long digression on the nature of power and how it is distributed. The actual authorities have very little power, and only punish the crimes of those who aren't powerful. Everyone bands together in groups, guilds or associations, aristocrats have their own bandits on payroll, etc... This priest, who has nobody to protect him, makes sure he never has to take sides in a dispute. When he does, he takes the side of the more powerful party. He is turning around the problem in his head as he walks back home. He is greeted by his faithful woman servant, Perpetua, who asks him what is wrong. He says "niente" or nothing, but she knows there is something. He drinks some of his favorite wine. The servant knows "when to obey and when to command." He spends the night tossing and turning with his dilemma.

The main techniques are description, authorial digression, dialogue, and free indirect style. Fairly standard 10th century realism. The theme seems to be the nature of power itself.

Monday, April 22, 2013


For me, only really great poetry fulfills the function of poetry at all. The rest is just to keep the institution going, to have poetry at all, because you couldn't have it without having a critical mass of it, quantitatively, for it to exist.

I don't feel this way about film, for example. Since I don't have high expectations of novels I think all novels fulfill the function of novel-reading, if I can stand to read the novel in question at all.

But then again, some poetry does fulfill that function by coming close to being great, with that shock of recognition. "I bought a dishmop / having no daughter." The second caveat: I can feel that great poetry comes in several forms, like the seemingly minor poetry of Ron Padgett. Thirdly, you can agree with me about this point, that only great poetry fulfills the function of poetry at all, but disagree about what poems and poets are actually great.

Of course, you can disagree with me that only great poetry fulfills the poetic function at all, but then I would probably disagree with you about what that function really is. I would define it tautologically as the function that only great poetry fulfills! I don't want to define it, otherwise, because any definition would feel exterior to poetry itself.


Poetry in translation, for me, rarely fulfills that particular function. For enough to come through, in translation, is exceedingly rare. The kind of translation that makes excuses for itself. The translation must enjoy a high degree of autonomy in relation to the original; it must be a translation of an already great poem, etc...

There's a version of a Lorca poem by Spicer that is superior than the original, for example. Lorca's poem is not great, in this case.

Borges points out logically that there is no a priori reason why a translation cannot be better than the original (or just as good). Say there are two poets of equal ability. One writes poem. The other writes a poem in another language that also happens to be a translation of the first poem. Logically, there is no reason to think that poem 1 will always be better than poem 2. This seems obvious, unless we think of the original as a sacred object.

But with a really great poem, then you get a situation where this poem has a one in a million chance of coming into existence. Then the chances that any particular translation of this poem will also be one in a million are, well, one in a million. If we think it is harder to write a poem when trying to translate than while writing your "own" poem, then the chances are less than one in a million. If you think that it is easier to be great when translating from a great poem, then the odds go the other way. Maybe every thousandth translation of the one in a million poem will be great.


I too dislike it. I cannot defend my feelings intellectually, but I cannot stop having them either.


My graduating Spanish majors do not feel they are fluent enough in the language. They are justifiably frustrated. Some of them are better than they think, but in some cases that perception is valid. I feel I do enough when I have students in my courses, but there is no system to get each and every student to that level.

Avoiding cliché language

You don't want your main thesis, or your main topic sentences, to be clichés about "cultural anxiety," "existential anguish," or "the inability of language to represent reality." I chose these three examples because they are from different periods. Cultural anxiety is from the 90s, existential anguish from the 40s and 50s, and ineffability from the 80s (more or less), but you can still find all of them today. Of course, these are successful memes because they do significant work, and they have all shown themselves to be productive, in some sense. New scholars keep discovering them and they can be useful for someone reaching for a vocabulary. What other of these memes are you tired of? Let me know. The winner (with the best [i.e. worst] entry) will receive a free life-time subscription to Stupid Motivational Tricks.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


You shouldn't write about everything in the same style. The material you are dealing with should impress itself upon your writing. It shouldn't be too heavy for something lighter, or too light for something heavy. It has to be modulated for register (formality / informality) and tone. This implies that you will have more than one stylistic trick.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Meme: The Next Big Thing

What is the title of your book?

What Lorca Knew: Fragments of a Late Modernity.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A one-sentence synopsis of my book would be a sentence that described the main argument of the book.

What genre does your book fall under?

It doesn't "fall" under any genre. I think that idiom is rather inappropriate.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Henry James's novel What Maisie Knew and Valente's Fragmentos de un libro futuro, entre otras cosas. It is the culmination of many other scholarly project over the years.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I haven't finished yet. Probably by December of 2013, for a total of about 3-4 years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Lorca's duende, but not in the way you would think.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither. It won't be self-published and I don't have an agent either. I'm hoping for the U of Chicago P.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?

My own book Apocryphal Lorca. Books by other great Hispanists, like Ricardo Gullón's Una poética para Antonio Machado.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I will play myself and Lorca. Paul Julian Smith will make a cameo appearance as himself.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

My theories of cultural exceptionalism are getting quite well developed. I thought I could never do better than Apocryphal Lorca but I think this book will be just as good.

Traditional Poetry

Here's a research project: twentieth century Spanish poetry that is [n]ot avant-garde even when critics call it that. Poetry that is radically modernist is in the vast minority here. The wind-through-the-poplars style* is much more prevalent quantitatively. I'm not talking about rescuing it from oblivion or saying that it is unjustly neglected, but of answering the question of why it is so prevalent once you take away the more canonical and avant-garde work. Even in other generations of Spanish poetry that old-fashioned romantic nature poetry is all over the place.


*I just made that up.

My talk on radio

I don't know if I can listen to this because I hate listening to myself.


The fall-back notion of aesthetic judgment is the idea of personal taste. But that is usually invoked when you are just tired of arguing. You just leave it at that. Individual differences do not explain areas of broad agreement. It can't be coincidental that large numbers of people have admired John Coltrane, each individually. Taste is social, not individual in the strict sense. This is not to deny individual differences, of course.

But how is it socially constructed? One idea is that hegemonic groups impose their taste by choosing texts or artifacts that belong to their own group, or that reinforce their own values. The dead white male theory of the canon. There's a lot of truth to that, but it doesn't explain why Lorca is canonical and Prados and Altolaguirre are not. Most writing by dead white males is not canonical, and most non-canonical writing is not non-canonical because it is by women or people of marginal groups.

It is true that canonical literature can be used to reinforce hegemonic values, but that is increasingly less the case. Are Lorca's values more hegemonic than those of Prados?

There is the idea that any difference of valuation reflects a belonging to a different community of readers. That the Barbara Hernstein Smith theory. I don't think that works very well, for reasons that John Guillory explains.

You could try to explain it through institutions. Schools, record companies, museums, governments, have a huge influence on taste. But then you start getting a circular reasoning. Why do the institutions favor what they favor? Do they favor the canonical because it is already canonical, or is it canonical because they promote it? Could they make the non-canonical canonical just by promoting it?

You could look at Bourdieu's theory, in which taste reflects the habitus of a particular social class. Now we are getting somewhere.

But the high-brow taste will only work as high-brow if it promotes objects of art and works of literature that really are high-brow. In other words, you couldn't just call a middle-brow work high-brow and get the high-brows to think it is great, by sheer fiat. If you canonized a bad poem by putting it in all the anthologies, it would still be bad. You couldn't get intelligent readers to think it is fine, just because it in the anthologies. Then people would say: this anthology contains some poems that are there for the traditional reasons, and others that are there to represent other kinds of writing that we have decided to favor.

So we come back to the idea that some poems just really are better than others. Where "better" means having the intrinsic character or satisfying the taste of those who know what's good. It has to be intrinsic, in some sense, because it doesn't work to just impose that judgment by fiat.

Take "Muerte a lo lejos," by J. Guillén:

Alguna vez me angustia una certeza,
Y ante mí se estremece mi futuro.
Acechándolo está de pronto un muro
Del arrabal final en que tropieza

La luz del campo. ¿Mas habrá tristeza
Si la desnuda el sol? No, no hay apuro
Todavía. Lo urgente es el maduro
Fruto. La mano ya lo descorteza.

...Y un día entre los días el más triste
Será. Tenderse deberá la mano
Sin afán. Y acatando el inminente

Poder diré sin lágrimas: embiste,
Justa fatalidad. El muro cano
Va a imponerme su ley, no su accidente.

Guillén is not santo de mi devoción, exactly. It is not my personal taste that is at issue. But reading this poem you can see why he is a deservedly well-known poet. And when you read his many bad poems, you know exactly how and why they are bad, compared to this one. Getting back to Kant, you know that this is a subjective judgment, but it has to be more than subjective (individual) or it doesn't really make sense. If I prefer Lorca to Prados it cannot be simple (1) My individual quirkiness (2) The imposition of a canon by a hegemonic group or a set of institutions.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


Would I teach my translation course instead of composition and grammar? Yes, yes. I get credit for being flexible while getting better schedule, better courses. That's up for the fall. I'm excited. I think I'll use it as a springboard for me MFA Translation Workshop.

I've given it three times. This time I want it more focused on the translation of poetry, because that's where the interesting issues really come up. In other words, it's where you can't really translate adequately that you get to heart of things.

Benjamin's idea that a translatable text is one that most resist translation.

Appiah's "Thick Translation." To translate so that the translation can be used in the teaching of literature. Simple and profound insight.

My idea of the "wisdom of crowds" in translation. This justifies group work and an anthology that we will put together.


I have a copy of Wellman's translation of Jardín cerrado. I blurbed the book, so I obviously don't think it's bad. Emilio Prados is a figure who should be read to have a more complete sense of Spanish poetry, for someone, say, who only knows Lorca and Machado.

...And yet. I would never dream of comparing Prados to Lorca. The drop-off from really striking, radically modernist poetry like Lorca's to Prados's nice-sounding and fairly conventional work is very noticeable:

Soledad, noche a noche te estoy edificando,
noche a noche te elevas de mi sangre fecunda
y a mi supremo sueño curvas fiel tus murallas
de cúpula intangible como el propio Universo...*

Second-line modernist poets like this are not even modernist. Thus I don't agree with one other blurb that says that Prados will take "his rightful place alongside his contemporaries: Alberti, Dalí, Buñuel, and Lorca." Prados is not a major figure. My argument is that we should read minor figures too!


*Vocabulary: solitude, night, I am building you, night, night, you arise, fecund blood, supreme dream, you curve, faithful, walls, cupula, intangible, the Universe itself.

Pragmatics of Columbo

Columbo is a detective known for a rumpled raincoat. Underneath he has on a suit that is of better quality than this coat. The murderer is always characterized by a certain arrogance. Wealthy, intelligent, sometimes famous too, the killer plans the crime meticulously. The television audience sees the crime committed in the beginning, so there is no mystery about who did it. The entire show consists of a series of interviews by Columbo (no first name) of the suspect. He is unfailingly polite, if a bit annoying. The suspect never suspects she or he is suspected, but gets annoyed since Columbo always has "one more thing" to ask. One little, nagging detail that is bothering him. At the end, of course, he arrests the suspect. We never know exactly when he knows who the killer is, but obviously he has to know he can prove it before he makes the arrest. There is never any violence or overt aggression (aside from the initial murder).

So the entire show consists of conversations, pragmatic interactions. He keeps the suspect off-guard by showing up at home or place of work, for returning when he's almost out of the door. The fact that the suspect always feels superior to the slovenly and absent-minded lieutenant allows for the persistent deployment of the trope of hubris. Columbo is Socratic in that he never assumes the attitude of one-who-knows. He is always just asking questions and trying to figure things out. The show is rich in pragmatics, in Gricean maxims and implicatures. It only depends on one basic situation playing itself out in the exact same way in every episode. For example, never takes the suspect to the police station, where he would be the dominant person and lose the advantage of the Socratic irony.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


So we were talking about reciprocity in my proverbs class today. This is a general principle of human relations that goes by many names: the golden rule, tit or tat, "consideration" in contract law, etc... In its negative form, it is also the lex talionis. Justice in general often if not always takes the form of a reciprocal logic.

This is the basis of friendship, according to proverbial wisdom, "hoy por mí, mañana por ti." This has cynical and idealistic interpretations, we decided. Idealistically, reciprocity is (relatively) disinterested and does not hold for strict accounting. In the economy of gift exchange, for example, the expectation is not for a strict exchange of equal value. We want friends to help us, and resent those who disappear when we need a favor. But we also resent friends who ask us for favors without reciprocating. Either way, the principle of reciprocity is not there. Cynically, a quid pro quo can also be a form of corruption, in which "one hand washes the other."

The looser exchange values of friendship do not translate to business dealings. Hence: "Entre dos amigos, un notario y dos testigos." [In business dealings between two friends, you need a notary and two witnesses.] The friend is someone you need to trust the least, in the typically cynical logic of proverbs.


In theory class today, we are going to read Appiah's essay "Thick translation." Here's an exercise:

Compare the proverb “A matter which troubles the Akan people, the people of Gonja take to play the Brékété drums." [epigraph to Appiah's essay]

“Anne had not wanted this visit to Uppercross to learn that a removal from one set of people to another, though at a distance of only three miles, will often include a total change of conversation, opinion, and idea. She had never been been staying there before, without being struck by it, or without wishing that other Elliots could have her advantage in seeing how unknown, or unconsidered, were the affairs which at Kellynch Hall were treated as of such general publicity and pervading interest...” (Jane Austen, Persuasion, chapter 6).
Appiah interprets the African proverb as a form of "different strokes," one of what I call the ur-proverbs. This one says that "people are different from each other." I see other meanings, though:

When the Akan people are troubled, the Conja are happy [because they are enemies, they wish misfortune on their enemies?]

When in Rome do as the Romans do. It is not individuals, but whole peoples who have different views. You should adjust to prevailing norms.

Even with a negative event, it is possible to have different reactions (either sit around and mope as one group would, or just play the drums!

The Jane Austen interpretation: "you don't have to travel very far to realize not everyone has the same perspective as you do."

Of course, Appiah is probably correct, since I have no independent idea about what the proverb would mean for people who actually use it. What interests me is the reversibility, the semantic indeterminacy of the proverb. These situations are sufficiently similar: (Schadenfreude, individuality of response, etc...) that a single proverb works for all of them.

Appiah also talks about Grice's maxims, which I also addressed recently in the proverb course, a propos of More Than Cool Reason.


See Liberman's response in red to my comment. Very good stuff.

Johnson papers at KS

Now I have to figure out an excuse to use my research time to look at this treasure-trove of material on one of my favorite poets.


I was playing ruzzle with my daughter. This is a dumb smart* phone game in which you find as many words as possible in two minutes in a 4 x 4 grid of letters. You play against random internet strangers. She is very good at it, and in fact we decided to play in Spanish. She was better at me at the game in Spanish because she can quickly see combinations of letters in statistically probable ways, even though she doesn't know Spanish, and she is lightning fast at the actual manual task of swiping her finger up and down, sideways, and diagonally, and all directions at once. The we tried it in Norwegian and put up a respectable score, even though we know neither Norwegian nor the statistically probable combinations of letters in the language. We found many Norwegian words and didn't lose too badly to someone I'm assuming knows Norwegian quite well.

I'm not sure what this is a metaphor for yet.


*Oxymoron deliberate.


I like putting emphasis on producing a finished product. If we emphasize process too much, then we lose sight of the goal. Take the finished product you want to see, imagine it in your mind, then reverse-engineer it. The process you need is a way of getting there. All those "shitty first drafts" and "rough drafts" should be invisible to the reader of the final product.

Cultural Studies

My off-the-cuff critique of cultural studies would be:

Cultural studies wants to be given credit for being anti-elitist. Elitism is foul, but a cheap anti-elitism can be even worse, especially when hegemonic political forces no longer have much use for high culture. Cultural studies often has an uneasy relation to its objects of study. It doesn't really value them, all that much, in many cases. Its arguments for them are that they aren't elite, that they are popular (in two senses: appealing to a lot of people and in some sense belonging to the "people"), and that they do political work of a useful kind. The hermeneutic model for interpreting popular or mass culture is often very weak, based on unexamined ideas about "anxiety." Its politics focus too much on whatever immediate problem is besetting the culture, and so much of the work gets out of date rather quickly. Finally, it is literary in a way that it doesn't always recognize, relying on romantic narratives.

That's how it seems to me. There are a couple of caveats though. My critique of a lot of literary studies would be equally harsh. Any given article in cultural studies is as likely to be brilliant as in any other field, and it is unfair to hold different standards for different fields. 90% of everything might be crap, after all.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Working Dream of Louisiana Exceptionality

There were thunderstorms early in the morning. These very real storms seemed to have something to do with a dream I was having, one which lasted quite long: I was going to Louisiana (or was already there) to discuss exceptionalism with the blogger known as z. I had nothing to say about it, but that didn't seem to be a problem because the assumption I had was that the ideas would magically appear in my head once I started speaking about it. The thunder seemed to provide the proper attitude of sturm und drang and romanticism that I needed to develop my Louisiana theory.

I call this a working dream, because it arose out of my work and then also provided a way of processing it unconsciously.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Literary, epistemological, ideological

My theses on exceptionalism are dividing up into these categories.

Literary: an examination of the fundamentally poetic and literary qualities of this discourse.

Epistemological: how to we know they are valid, true?

Ideological: What is their imaginative relation to reality itself?

An Interesting Mind

I really feel that I have an interesting mind. Yet I feel that it is only interesting when I can follow through major research projects and organize and discipline my ideas. So maybe other people have minds as interesting, in theory, but it never comes out because they never have a chance (or the ability) to develop ideas in that next step. A lot of people's minds are simply not that interesting, and this is mysterious to me.

There are several types of people: those who can find interesting material, but can never quite do anything with it. Those who follow dull paradigms set by other people.

Some axioms on exceptionalism

2. Exceptionalism is the literary child of romanticism.

3. Exceptionalism, then, is the “foundational fiction” for the study of national literatures.

4. Because of this foundational romanticism, the ideology of exceptionalism is attractive to literary intellectuals.

5. Cultural exceptionalism is neither true nor false.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Radio Lorca

Radio Lorca.

My talk isn't up there yet, but may be soon.

Good romanticism and bad romanticism

I haven't worked this out yet, obviously, but it may be a mistake to try to distinguish good romanticism from bad. In other words, the good, authentic, intellectually rigorous kind, and the bad, degraded nationalistic kind. Or the good progressive kind, and the bad conservative kind, etc... Romanticism as originality and romanticism as kitsch.

You could substitute other words for romanticism here.

Yet More

What's American about American poetry?

I saw this website while working on my book on Lorca. I think I went through and counted how many poets mentioned him while reflecting on the Americanness of American poetry.

My answer would be either (a) not much or (b) everything. The very category implies Americanness, so every feature shared by enough poets would count. But if we don't have a definition of Americanness, then the exercise seems pointless.

Thinking Outside of Exceptionalism

It is hard to outside of it, because then you seem to be saying "nothing is remarkable about Spanish culture" (then why study it?) or "Spain has resolved its historical problems" (not true).

So what I want is what, a way of looking at it as a sort of everyday unhappiness rather than as a neurosis, to borrow Freud's formulation. In other words, a set of problems to be worked on but not mystified. Working on them is, precisely, a demystification.

So I have to step around my own romanticism. I am moving toward a more ideological and less theological kind of criticism.

[Went to the gym today, came back did all my emails about exam scheduling, wrote some on my chapter, and it's still only 10:10. The only other work I'll do is meeting with student and grade appeal hearing.]


I never wanted to be a senator but here I am. Don't congratulate me; it's not a particularly big honor.

Un país fuera de lo común

Elena Delgado tells me her new book (which has just been accepted!) is going to be called Un país fuera de lo común. An out-of-the-ordinary country. This convinces me that the exceptionalist debate is the debate in my field. Just like Brad Epps and Cifuentes's book is called Spain Beyond Spain.

Analytics of the the Prefix (more theory notes)

Inter and trans mean the same thing: between or across. Meta can mean across, as in metaphor, beyond or beside, after, ruling, or self-consciously reflective. Post means after. It implies many times a negation of what came before. Postracial might mean there is no more racism, for example, or that we are beyond race.

So there is a kind of meta-analysis of these prefixes. All involve a going beyond, a transcendence, or a crossing of some kind. They are all metaphorical.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


So I gave my first skype lecture today for another blogger's class. It went fine, as far as I can tell, so I was thinking I can offer that for any reader of the blog who wants me to give a lecture in their class. I could probably do one to four a semester without it being much extra work for me. I would be glad to spread el evangelio según Lorca or según Mayhew.

Arrímate a los buenos

I used to think I needed to be the best scholar in my field. I could be the leading scholar of Spanish poetry, or the leading specialist in Lorca. The one flaw in that logic is that all it takes is a single person who is better, and you won't achieve that goal. At most, you can be the world's greatest authority on a very minor subset of a subfield, but then what is the point of that? At that point you are best of a group of 1.

A better strategy is to be one of a group of good scholars that everyone recognizes, more or less. You can compete good-naturedly with others in the group, but once you are in you are part of it and don't have to worry about whether you are number 4 or number 15.

Caro Baroja and Mead

Caro Baroja was reacting against an anthropological tradition of national essentialism exemplifed by book like Margaret Mead's Keep Your Powder Dry. He mentions Mead on the first page of his book.


Ok, I don't have 10 axioms yet, but my idea is to work on that part of the chapter by developing 10 axioms and then explaining each one. If I can put them in order, then an argument will emerge. I'm thinking of what Sedgwick did in part of Epistemology of the Closet with the title "Axiomatic."

1. Cultural exceptionalism is always a literary construction.

[update: I have nine now. Looking for the 10th]

[update 2: found the 10th one. I could keep going, but then after 10 any other axiom would be rephrasing. My 10th one is basically a variation on the idea that if there is more than one version of exceptionality for any nation or group, it shows that all are constructions.]

[update 3: I have twelve, without too much repetition.]

[update 4: thirteen, so I can call it 13 ways of looking at...]

per speculum in aenigmate

There is no reason to think the phrase "per speculum in aenigmate" is superior or inferior to "through a glass darkly" or "Βλέπομεν άρτι δι' εσόπτρου εν αινίγματι." Just because one text is the original and the others are translations has no impact on whether one text is better or worse than the other.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


I was on a panel at NYU yesterday directed by Jo Labanyi and featuring Antonio Monegal, Andrés Soria Olmedo, and Paul Julian Smith. Smith and I shared the disdain for dumb readings of the duende. We all went to a Spanish restaurant later, with Laura García-Lorca (Lorca's niece) and some of the other staff of the King Juan Carlos Center and I didn't get to my hotel until 12:30 a.m. It was fun because I don't get to talk about Lorca in front of high-powered Lorca scholars very often, if at all.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Title of this post comes from Sorrentino, who got it from Williams. The "G.S." in Paterson is Gilbert Sorrentino.

It's pretty much Louis Althusser's definition of ideology, as the imagined relationship to the real circumstances of our lives. Sorrentino uses what we call "metafiction" to talk about the phoniness of his characters' literary aspirations. They are bad poets and novelists. They aren't real (Sorrentino made them up and constantly reminds us of that) and they are "real" in the existential self (they are inauthentic). The only way of coming to terms with reality is to know that your literary constructions are fakery. Realism only takes place in anti-realism, because what we call realism is just conformity to ideological constructions.

Sorrentino hated the Marxist grad students at Stanford. They gave him a hard time because he was too "formalist." But he was a Flaubertian trying to dismantle the "idées reçues" all about him.

Literature presents idealized ideas about our relation to reality. The sensitive poet is one I hate very much. You know, the Mary Oliver-type poem where the speaker waxes sentimental about a deformed cat. That is about as convincing as the whore with a heart of gold, the rugged individualist, etc... All those social types out of central casting. The curmudgeonly boss you are really supposed to love.

Beware of any idealization that is supposed to fuse contraries, or resolve social difference through poetic trope. Beware of "magic realism" or "mestizaje."

Just Sayin'

All "fiction" is "literary."

Monday, April 8, 2013


A scholar has to do a lot of things. Read, write, revise, research, organize. I spend a lot of time thinking. Literally not doing anything except thinking things through, without writing anything down or talking with anyone. If a session of thinking results in a blog post, or some note-taking, that's fine too. The thought does result in writing, eventually, but in itself it is pure contemplation.

You could see how a scholar might must work by gathering materials, organizing them, writing notes, and developing them into published works. I feel the need to devote time just to thinking as well.

Truth Claims

I'm not all that interested in whether something like Castro's "morada vital" is objectively verifiable. In other words, I want to analyze it as an ideological construct, see its roots in Dilthey or other German romantics, as well as perhaps in Ortega y Gasset and Menéndez Pidal. I don't have much interest in debunking it, or choosing an alternative theory of Spanish identity more to my liking. Sánchez Albornoz, for example, who disagrees with Castro, has a concept of a "contextura vital." I've highlighed some of Castro's poetic language in a typical passage:
Parto de la convicción de haberse formado el pueblo español y de haber surgido a la vida historiable en enlace con situaciones casi siempre muy apretadas y desapacibles. Tuve así que construir una figura historiable en la cual cupiesen tanto los desarrollos valiosos como los opuestos a ellos. He tomado como centro y agente de esta historia el taller de vida en que la españolidad fue fraguándose, y no parciales rasgos psicológicos, siempre genéricos e inconexos; no he pensado tampoco en que las circunstancias exteriores fueran algo aislable del curso mismo de la vida, como si ésta fuese una realidad ya previamente dada sobre la cual cayeran causas o motivos. La vida historiable consiste en un curso o proceso interior, dentro del cual las motivaciones exteriores adquieren forma y realidad; es decir, se convierten en hechos y acontecimientos dotados de sentido. Estos últimos dibujan la peculiar fisonomía de un pueblo, y hacen patente el "dentro" de su vida, nunca igual al de otras comunidades humanas. Mas este "dentro" no es una realidad estática y acabada, análoga a la sustancia clásica; es una realidad dinámica, análoga a una función o, como indicaré luego, a una invariante. Pero el término "dentro" es ambiguo: puede designar "el hecho de" vivir ante un cierto horizonte de posibilidades y de obstáculos (íntimos y exteriores), y entonces lo llamaré "morada de la vida"; o puede referirse "al modo como" los hombres manejan su vida dentro de esta morada, toman conciencia de existir en ella, y entonces lo llamo "vividura". Ésta sería el modo "vivencial", el aspecto consciente del funcionar subconsciente de la "morada"

Come here me talk on Lorca in NY tomorrow.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Thoughts for the Day

An exceptional writer in an exceptional environment won't be "normal." In other words, if Spain is exceptional because non-European, and a writer in Spain is exceptional because of reaching out to Europe, then this writer won't be a "normal" European writer (whatever that is!) but twice strange, because of reacting against an exceptional environment. There is no outside to exceptionalism?

You could view it as an imaginary relation to something real (Althusser's definition of ideology). So it is fictional, but not in the sense that the entities being considered are not real.


"Dear Dr. Mayhem ..." I wonder if this person really thinks there are people with the surname of "Mayhem." ?? "Meet Dr. Murder and Dr. Riot."


Every day I get up and work with this same ideas, pushing them a bit further, figuring out what I've already figured out and trying to get to the next step. Compare if I had started thinking about something yesterday. I wouldn't seem very smart. I've been engrossed in this line of thinking for three or four months.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


It is very easy to see that certain right-leaning or obsolete cultural narratives are false. Take "rugged individualism" or "melting pot," or "Yankee ingenuity." We can dislike them because they lean right or because they are false, or for many other reasons. What I am suggesting is that even those myths we happen to like are also mythic, based on tropes, and poetically constructed. None of these cultural constructions are simply given.

So there are at least three issues:

1) Ideological causes and effects. Take the myth of Southern "nobility" in the American civil war. It has certain causes, and certain effects. Working either way we can see that it is ideologically pernicious.

2) "Truth" or "falsity." Those are the kind of claims susceptible to disproof on more or less objective grounds. We could point out that people who rely on the myth of rugged individualism direct industries dependent on government subsidies.

3) Tropological structure. That is the way the particular myth is constructed in terms of a synecdoche or metaphor or whatever. Take Nixon's question of whether "it will play in Peoria." The geographical middle of the country is supposed to represent a sort of averageness. The mid-West is the synecdoche for the country as a whole.


I have been using words like myth, fiction, trope, and narrative, often interchangeably. It would behoove me to be more rigorous.

Myth refers to a certain cultural / ideological effect, as in Barthes' Mythologies. The myth is something cultural that is seen, falsely, to lie in nature itself. Its ideological nature is hidden. It seems denotative but is really connotative.

Myth and fiction imply the constructed nature, and also implies a certain falseness.

Narrative implies a narrative version of a fiction or myth, a story about how things came to be. Narratives are often fictional, but they are always human, cultural constructions. Even "true" narratives are not simply given by objective reality itself.

Master-narratives (or "metanarratives" meta-récits or metarrelatos) are larger narrative structures in which individual narratives are inscribed.

Trope refers the metaphorical or metonymical structure of the particular construction of reality. Master tropes are those that are seen at work on a larger scale.

Poetics and poetics

I first analyzed Lorca's duende as a manifestation of his own poetics. That is fine; that is what every other Lorca scholar tries to do as well.

But the lecture on the duende is also an exceptionalist theory of Spanish cultural expression. I broke off that part of my analysis into a separate chapter.

But then all the parts that don't seem fit in with the reading of the duende as a theory of Spanish exceptionalism, end up supporting this second reading. All the syncretic and universalizing ideas that make it so much more than a theory of Spain, end up being typical of theories of cultural exceptionalism after all. I am on the verge of a break-through here.

Modernist theories of exceptionalism are never monolithic, always syncretic, because they need to synthesize various elements. They also need to universalize, even when they are based on a minoritizing impulse.

Poetics, in terms of a poet's ideas about poetry, and poetics, as a system of thought based on a series of tropes, come together.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

More Exceptionalism

Right after I wrote that last post I got this email:
In what ways does literature reinforce, contest, and amend the discourse of American exceptionalism? Exceptionalism in its simplest form refers to a range of nationalist beliefs that together locate the United States as exemplary in relation to other nation-states. Although not coined until 1929 and not popularized until the postwar period, exceptionalism appears in different forms throughout American history, from John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” to Harry Truman’s “leader of the free world” to, most recently, George W. Bush’s “nation with a mission.” The latter’s declaration of the ongoing Global War on Terror in September 2001 has provoked further debate among scholars on the enduring legacy of exceptionalist claims.

Yet, despite interest among political scientists and cultural critics, American exceptionalism remains an under-theorized subject within literary studies. This special issue of LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory thus considers the place of literature in the past and present debates surrounding US exceptionalist thinking. If, as Donald Pease argues, exceptionalism maintains “structures of disavowal,” through what strategies might authors complicate these structures? When, on the other hand, does literature endorse exceptionalist nationalism? In what ways does exceptionalism inform literary production and criticism?

The editors encourage the submission of essays that theorize American exceptionalism in combination with clear and engaging textual analysis. Submissions should be between 5,000 and 10,000 words in length and formatted according to MLA Style. Please send manuscripts and 200-word abstracts to Guest Editor Joseph Darda at litjourn@yahoo.com.
This call for papers is tempting for me. I would point out that American exceptionalism is, in fact, a literary concept in the first place. I'm glad to see that the editor sees the concept as "undertheorized," because that means more remains to be done. My contribution would be on exceptionalist discourses within the counter-culture, not on the stereotypically right-wing uses of the concept.

After Lorca

After What Lorca Knew will come a project I am calling a "critique of the poetics of cultural exceptionalism." I wrote an outline of 700 words of some of the ideas I've been developing here on this blog, but I really need to write about 2,000 words just summarizing some basic concepts in very schematic form. I don't really know whether this project will be a book, but it is certainly too long for an article. Just about everyone gets some skin into the cultural exceptionalism game.


What is meant by the word "culture"? In other words, since all human ideas and activities are cultural by definition, the cultural is, in theory, everything and nothing, yet people mean something a bit more specific when they say culture or cultural.

That was a question I posed to my class yesterday. The answers I came up in class, with some further elaboration this morning, with were these. I wasn't looking for the standard anthropological answer.

1) Culture is only culture when it is a problem, somehow. For it to be a problem you have to have two cultures, or two definitions of culture. Hence everything in cultural theory has to be trans- or inter- or multi-.

2) Culture is symbolic. It is the meaning attached to whatever the phenomenon is. So eating garlic is not cultural, but believing that garlic is symbolic of Spanish culture is, in the way that Barthes talks about le bifsteak as a sign of francicité. For a meaning to be cultural it has to attach itself to some kind of "identity."

3) Cultural debate is about legitimacy. What gets to count as culture, what gets to be studied or granted symbolic importance.

So to synthesize these points, culture has to do with the jockeying for legitimacy among contested symbols of identity or identification. It only becomes visible as such when there is a conflict over legitimacy.

Once this is clear, I will know how to define cultural exceptionalism: all cultural theory is exceptionalist, to the extent that it defines symbols of identity in a way that is charged with value judgments. That's how far I've gotten today.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Lector, no hay texto; se hace texto al interpretar

A grad student turned in a paper with this title. I was immediately delighted. The title is a play on a Machado poem that begins: "Caminante, no hay camino / se hace camino al andar." [traveler, there is no road; / the road takes form as you walk.]


Still proud of my translation of this.

Meta trumps trans

So my ability to see all these hybrid, nomad, trans-, and post- phenomena as part of the same metadiscursive formation allows me stand above them, in a way, seeing what they all have in common and what those strategies entail. Without taking away the value these concepts have for pragmatic interventions within intellectual discourse. In other words, I don't want to simply disqualify discourses based on that rhetorical strategy. It is too easy to make fun of it because it becomes a bit predictable.

The authority of the legitimizing discourse is what gives it its hermeneutic power, rather than vice-versa.

Legitimation or Validation?

I used to think that the main question was validation. In other words, reaching conclusions that are valid, justified, not just made up. Now I am thinking the main issue for the humanities is legitimation: the conferral of value on the humanistic enterprise itself, and on the objects of its study, from whatever particular ideological angle is in play. So much of what we do is an assumption of a position. Even very major theoretical interventions often account for little more than an effort to legitimate the study of something. Once that is done, then the validity follows almost direclty from that legitimation itself. It's like getting on a hill and claiming it as one's own with a particular buzzword. Nomad subjects, or intersticial identities, or crosstranspostnationlhybridizations. The superior terminology will be the one that resolves the indaquacies of the best of the previous conceptualizations in new language.

The problem is to legitimate in a way that doesn't simply replicate obvious state / corporate interests. The language, the generation of buzzwords, has a poetic function of creating a metaphor for whatever serves to unsettle any easy identification between that language and the elite group that happens to be proposing it.

You can tell I've been reading Latin American Cultural studies texts for theory class today. For example, José Rabasa:

"La noción de mundos múltiples no contradictorios nos permite pensar en sujetos que la vez sean mestizos, híbridos y nómadas, sin incurrir en la celebración de una síntesis cultural..."

[The notion of multiples worlds not in contradiction allows us to conceptualize subjects that are at once mestizo, hybrid, and nomad, withot falling into a celebration of cultural synthesis...]

"Towards a Culture of Translation"

This article keeps using the word belletristic as a kind of insult, almost a curse-word. But of course literary translations is part of belles lettres by definition. It is not primarily a branch of literary theory. The culture of translation for which Venuti calls is defined in his terms, not in the terms of the common run of actual translators, whose interests he seems to be defending, but whom he denigrates as untheoretical.

I always get suspicious when someone uses the rejection of his own work as evidence of a larger problem, as Venuti does here. I have had translations rejected too, but I would never think to draw conclusions from that about the state of the art / culture as a whole.
After an editor with whom I was acquainted had rejected some poems, I questioned the decision. I didn’t expect the rejection to be reconsidered. No, I rather wanted to force the magazine to do what magazines rarely do: to make explicit the standards by which it judged the translations, or if not this particular submission, then translations in general. Editor X was kind enough to reply, explaining that the poems “didn’t make us feel as if the tops of our heads were taken off.” I pressed further: had Editor X ever considered that translations, by their very nature, should be judged differently from original compositions in English, or that the standard might include but should nonetheless differ from a visceral reaction that is evidently rooted in a homegrown sensibility? After all, Emily Dickinson was being quoted at me. Editor X thought my view novel and promised to give it some thought, but the conversation stopped there.

Yet I could have taken it much further. Should an English translation of a twenty-first-century Catalan poet, I would have asked, be judged according to a concept of poetry formulated by a nineteenth-century poet in the United States? Why should we hold a poet who writes in a minor language and whose literature is underrepresented in English to a standard articulated by a poet who, after a shaky initial reception, now occupies an unshakeable position in the canon of American literature? Are the values enshrined in that canon inimical to Catalan and possibly other foreign poetries? Can a poem that took the top off the head of a reclusive, self-absorbed woman in nineteenth-century New England do the same to an anglophone reader today?
I don't actually think that translations should be judged by a different standard than original poems. I belong to a belletristic tradition of poet-translators who would reject that double-standard, which is in fact pernicious. Isn't that why people hold translators in such contempt? They want to have it both ways: have their work valued as original, while being held to a much lower standard. After all, it is only a translation! Venuti also objects to the quotation of Emily, calling her "self-absorbed." (!) There is nothing about Catalan poetry that would make it less likely to cause a strong visceral reaction. What the editor meant was that these poems, in translation at least, failed to make a strong impression. I've had that problem too, with poems that I thought were strong in the original, and which I also translated well, in my opinion, but which failed to impress a few editors. I just moved on, because you can't force someone to have the same reaction you think you would have had. Translation takes place in the "domestic" realm, for people who cannot read the original, so of course "home grown" standards will enter into the judgment. How could they not?

I've learned from Venuti, but he also irritates me.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Garlic and olive oil as myths

Barthes analyzes the mythic properties of wine, milk, steak, and other foods in Mythologies. In the analysis I did with me class yesterday we looked at garlic and oil. Garlic is the fountain of health and associated with humble life. "Quítale el ajo y muerto has al aldeano." Plant your garlic on November 11, the day of Saint Martin. "Del gaznate para abajo, todo sopas de ajo."

Olive groves are the source of wealth. You inherit a house from your father, a vineyard from your grandfather, but an olive grove from your great-grandfather. Or "Viña la que plantaras, olvivar el que heredaras." You don't want to plant an olive grove, but rather inherit one. I'm assuming because they take a while to come into their own. When olives are harvested, even your nieces will have bridegrooms. Olive oil is a panacea. The remedy of aunt Mariquita, que con aceite todo lo quita. The best cook is the container in which you keep you oil.

There are proverbs about wine in Spanish, but not about beer. You should drink wine and eat raw garlic for health.

The mythic qualities are those that go beyond the pragmatic benefits and become transcendental.


Attempts to overturn orthodox accounts of national identity fall back on other kinds of exceptionalism. Even refutations of exceptionalism often do so (if the orthodox version of history is exceptionalist, the refutation will typically be exceptionalist).

Refutations of exceptionality that emphasize "normality" can be even more noxious, however. You can't escape exceptionalist discourse simply by saying Spain is a "normal" country like any other. It may be the case that it is "normal" in the way that every other culture is, that is, based on contradiction and anomaly. But so is Italy or Norway.

Gay Exceptionalism

The final stage in the argument of the book will be to link the tropes of gay exceptionalism to those of national exceptionalism. Now I'm finally seeing how the argument of the book will play out! "I'll use the line from Ginsberg: "America, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel." Why I didn't see this before I don't know. Perhaps I did and forgot about it, because I wasn't ready to write that section yet. I can't think of everything at once.

I read all those queer theory books as they were coming out in the 90s and early 2000s. I've used them and taught them. I know this body of work pretty well and even had a book project that never came to anything aside from some articles. It is a very different time now, when the rhetoric of equality trumps that of endless difference.

The best of that now 20-year old theory balanced "minoritizing" and "universalizing" impulses (Sedgwick).

Reading List

I have read El mito del carácter nacional by Caro Baroja. Another book by Jon Juaristi wasn't as interesting as it sounded (for my purposes). The Basques are (ironically or not) the best writers on Spanish exceptionalism: Unamuno, Caro Baroja, Juaristi, Goytisolo. (I'll count him as Basque because of his surname, and because I can't quite see him as Catalan.)

I have to re-read some Goytisolo novels and essays. I realized now I've never actually read Juan sin tierra. I will look at Brad Epps's book on JG as well.

Sebastiaan Faber's two books, on Hispanism in the US and on Spanish exiles in Mexico. I am on an MLA panel with him if all goes as planned. My daughter will be studying in Chicago at either Northwestern or DePaul so I can see her as well.

All this reading will be for one chapter, really one or two sections of the chapter. But I am thinking that it will also give me material for my seminar on Metanarratives of Hispanism, and a future project on Spanish exceptionalism arising out of that seminar.

Monday, April 1, 2013


I resist Christological interpretations of Lorca. Basically, his juvenilia evinces a heavy Jesus obsession, and people using that see that as a key to all his subsequent work. My point is that the mature work doesn't have such a heavy obsession, any longer, so this is a typically adolescent preoccupation that one could expect to diminish with maturity. Instead, these critics view it as going underground and still holding the concealed hermeneutic key to his entire work. Meaning is concealed; works don't mean what they seem to mean, but must be interpreted according to a biographical code instead. (Contrast with Smith, who makes the startling assertion that Lorca's theatrical language is "transparent," containing no hidden meanings. I don't agree with that either, for other reasons. The notion of transparency is problematic here.)

Consider a writer who doesn't think that his juvenilia will ever see the light of day. He will not encode hidden meanings that will only be apparent to those who have studied the juvenilia. If literary reading worked that way then we would understand very little of what we read, because we would have to know vastly more about each author's life and childhood than we know about almost anyone's, even people we know very well. I think we have to read Yerma as a play about a woman who wants to have a child, because that is what the play is about.

It is true that a certain obsession with martyrdom continues in Lorca's mature work...